Stereotypes. Few nations have so many inaccurate stereotypes to contend with. Scots have a reputation for being dour, which will surprise anybody who spends enough time here. Scots can be quiet amongst people they don’t know well, but will warm up after a few drinks, or once they get to know you. (The latter option is the slowest way.) We’ll get back to the prominent place alcohol plays in society later. There is a myth about Scots being misers, but it is just that, a myth. Most Scots are generous to a fault. The accusation that Scots lack a sense of humour is also wide of the mark. Hollywood has presented us as being variously: proud warriors, down-to-earth simpletons or people who live in castles. If you want a better insight into the Scots character avoid Braveheart, and rent Gregory’s Girl instead.
Language. A broad Scots accent, when spoken at full pelt, can be difficult for an outsider to understand. Most people will be kind enough to anglicize their diction when speaking. There are Scots terms and phrases that will baffle the uninitiated, but just ask what we mean. People are happy to explain themselves and we take a certain pride in having our own vernacular. Unlike the Irish, very few people speak Gaelic anymore. The main exception is on the Western Isles where it remains people’s first language and only grudgingly will they speak English. There are a few mainlanders trying to revive it, but they tend to be the kind of people who knit their own clothes.
National Pride. Contrary to popular belief, most Scots don’t hate the English, though winding them up is something of a national pastime. There is a complicated relationship between the Scots and their homeland. We are quick to criticise, but even quicker to take offence if an outsider makes disparaging comments. Scots who move away are expected to maintain a polite respect for their country. We don’t take kindly to exiles passing judgement on Scotland; that right is reserved for those of us left behind. We can be a sentimental bunch, especially after a few drinks, but nobody, not even an Englishman, makes fun of the tartan Brigadoon-style nonsense more than we do ourselves.
Politics. Devolution has given Scotland its own parliament in Edinburgh and the ability to manage most of its own affairs - although they are unlikely to force independence on the country. The general feeling is that the present system is working fine and the majority of Scots favour staying within the Union. It would be counter-productive for the Scottish National Party (SNP) to push the issue, despite their belief that Scotland should be independent. A greater threat to the Union may be the arrival of a Tory Government in Westminster. Many Scots still bear a grudge from the last time they ruled over us and have no desire to see them in power again.
Alcohol. Scotland has a huge drinking culture. Few social occasions pass without it. There is however growing concern over alcohol-related problems such as anti-social behaviour and adverse effects on health. Although Scotland is world-famous for producing whisky, it tends to be regarded as an old man’s drink. For younger people, Vodka is the spirit of choice, probably because you can put coke in it and the barman won’t look at you like you kicked his dog in the face. However Whisky exports are a major contributor to the economy and most distilleries cater for visitors with guided tours.
Religion. A recent census poll estimated that almost a quarter of the population are secular. Vying for the rest of our souls are various forms of Protestant Calvinism. The Kirk (Church of Scotland) has the largest share, while there is also a strong Catholic presence in the Central part of Scotland and in Glasgow. Visitors to Scotland may be surprised to find that many former churches have been refurbished and re-opened as public houses or nightclubs.
Sport. For some, football belongs in the religion category and not simply because of the passion shown by fans. Rangers traditionally represent the Protestant faith, while Celtic were formed by Irish Catholics. Relations between the two are hostile. There are actually enough teams in Scotland to form a Premier League, but from reading the National and UK press, you would think there are just the two of them. Scottish football is under-funded and over-priced with matches costing at least £20 a ticket, far too much for what is on offer. Rugby is popular too, though mostly amongst the middle-classes. Shinty is the main sport in the Highlands. Essentially it is a version of the Irish game Hurley, though it looks like a bunch of big tough men playing hockey. For the rich there are country sports, mostly involving shooting animals. Fish stocks are low in Scottish rivers so most of what is caught has to go back in the water. Scotland has so many golf courses that eventually it is quite possible the entire country will become one giant course and all the people will be land-stripped and shipped overseas.
Food. Scotland has notoriously high levels of heart disease. Health experts have been playing mum in recent years by encouraging us to eat fruit and stuff. Things are improving. There is plenty of fresh produce available for those who want it, so there is no need to bring your own vegetables if you come and visit. Scotland is perfect for lovers of seafood, being so small that no part of the country is too far away from a day’s catch. Haggis is an acquired taste, as anything traditionally made with sheep’s offal would be. It is worth trying, though, and the easiest way is from a chip shop where it will be served in batter. Some chippers also serve deep fried Mars bars, jokingly considered a Scottish delicacy. Scotland’s other national drink apart from Whisky is Irn Bru, a dark orangey soft-drink that is very sweet. Hugely popular amongst Scots, it is the only soft-drink in the world that can outsell Coke in any domestic market.
Weather. Changeable. It can be bright and sunny one moment, then pouring with rain the next. Winter can be harsh. If you fancy going hill-walking do please wear the right gear. Ill-equipped climbers who get in trouble will be rescued but shown little sympathy if they are found to have tried to climb a mountain wearing a pair of trainers and a T-shirt.
National Dress. Although the kilt may look like a skirt, it’s not one. That may be the most important lesson you will ever learn about the Scots, so write it down. It’s traditional for the wearer of the kilt to go commando, so if you lift one up don’t say you weren’t warned. It is primarily worn for weddings or other social occasions such as Highland Gatherings. A more casual version of the outfit is worn by football and rugby fans for international matches, with the fancy apparel such as waistcoats are left at home in favour of Scotland shirts.
Homecoming. The SNP are behind an initiative to celebrate all that Scotland has given the world; inventing television, the steam engine, curing syphilis with penicillin, and Grand Theft Auto. There is also a TV advertisement intended to inspire exiles (presumably rich ones) to return home, with various celebrities including Sean Connery singing a sentimental song called ‘Caledonia.’ Bizarrely, it’s only airing in Scotland, thus completely defeating the point.
One last word of warning after this insight — be careful of the stereotypes! Whilst you can always draw a thread of similarity between the nationals of a country, the extent and size of that thread may vary widely!